Fast Talk: O'Neal, Clanton and last-lap tactics
Here's the latest edition of Fast Talk, a new DirtonDirt.com feature appearing each Monday. Staffers Michael Rigsby, Todd Turner and Joshua Joiner gather weekly for a roundtable discussion about who's hot, who's not and other issues regarding Dirt Late Model racing. Regular contributor Ben Shelton subs for Joshua today (edited for clarity and length):
Todd Turner: Let’s catch up on the biggest races during the heat — literally — of the season with a busy couple of weekends bridged by Fourth of July specials. We’ll start with Don O’Neal’s dominating performance in the Clash at the Mag for his $20,000 Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series payday at Magnolia Motor Speedway in Columbus, Miss.
Ben, you saw this one with O’Neal lapping all but three competitors in dominating this one for his ninth series victory of the season. It’s not often you see someone put a lap on reigning series champ Jimmy Owens or Hall of Famer Billy Moyer, but O’Neal was in a world of his own, wasn’t he?
Ben Shelton: O’Neal was truly head and shoulders above everybody. Bloomquist made a mid-race run at him, but after that O'Neal motored away from the pack. Not only did you see guys like Owens and Moyer get lapped once, you saw some of them get lapped twice. The track was much tackier than some expected, so tire selection was more crucial than ever, but still O'Neal was very impressive. He has more ability to dominate a race right now than anybody else on the tour. The key continues to be the need for consistency, and if he can knock down two solid runs this weekend at Tri-City Speedway and Lucas Oil Speedway he could establish himself as a very real contender for the title
Michael Rigsby: Watching the highlights, that was an odd race really. The way the bottom was so good, if you were set up to take advantage of it, you were loads quicker. I noticed midway through the race O'Neal ran a lap one second faster than everyone. A full second. That tells you all you need to know.
TT: We had our concerns about Owens when he went winless on the Lucas Oil tour through mid-May — then he clicked off two huge victories in extending his series points lead. Don’t look now, but he’s on a streak of five straight finishes outside the top five, one more such finish than all of last season on the tour. The inconsistency of his pursuers has kept his points lead at more than 250, but surely O’Neal and Scott Bloomquist see a chink in the armor.
MR: How demoralizing must it be, though, that there's a chink in the armor and you're still down by 250 points. I mean he just had his worst run in a while, and he's got an overwhelming lead. Do we really think he's gonna be like this the rest of the year? I don't. He could win two this weekend really, but if it gets to down around 150 or so by the time this weekend is over, then I'll take notice.
BS: I think it's shown that he's beatable, but with that said, he's had sub-par runs (by his own standards) the past five races and he still leads by more than 250 points. I think he is still the odds-on favorite to win the title, but as stated in my previous answer, the ball is in O'Neal court now to make a run at the points championship.
TT: The World of Outlaws Late Model Series lost its Wild West Tour opener in Superior, Wis. to rain, but Deer Creek Speedway’s Gopher 50 had the action of two races packed into one with Shane Clanton barely holding off repeated challenges from Tim McCreadie and Darrell Lanigan. It marked Clanton’s first victory of the year and continues the momentum he started with his out-of-nowhere $100,000 victory at Eldora Speedway’s Dream XVIII. How about those final laps?
BS: That was some exciting stuff at one of the best prepared race tracks in the country. While it might not be well-known in the Dirt Late Model world, Deer Creek Speedway hosts some of the best, high-profile modifieds races in the country each year. Great track, great surface, and great crowds. Clanton definitely didn't look to have the best car at the end, but this is racing and he did what he had to do to get the win. It made for an awesome finish.
MR: I've always said that Deer Creek is one of the best tracks in the country, that just doesn't get enough love from late model people because it's a little out of the way. It's always racy. I really couldn't tell who was going to do what in those final laps, but I thought on at least two occasions McCreadie and Lanigan had him beat, and Clanton soldiered-up and won the race. That final turn four, if not for the Hell Tour finish at Tri-State, might be the talk of the weekend.
TT: Yes, the last set of turns on the final lap was critical in both races. Recall Clanton’s move to protect the low groove on that last lap at Deer Creek, then consider how a similar move failed for Scott James on Sunday in Scott Weber’s shocking UMP DIRTcar Summernationals victory at Tri-State Speedway in Haubstadt, Ind. Weber said he believes James would’ve won had he stuck with the high groove instead of sacrificing his momentum to try and protect his lead by diving low in turn three. Obviously it’s easy to second-guess moves like that, and you gotta believe your instinct in the driver seat is to jump down there and block the guy. It doesn’t always pay off.
BS: Yeah, it's definitely easy for any of us to second-guess a move.ï¿½ These guys are racing at close to 100 mph and have milliseconds to decide their next move. Just like Clanton was the hero for the success of his move, if James’s move to the bottom wins him the race at Tri-State, he's the hero of that situation. The fans were no doubt the big winners in both races, though. Just some really good racing action
TT: Weber’s victory in his first-ever Summernationals feature start — and just second series race he’s entered — has to go down as one of the tour's all-time biggest upsets. Although after watching him wheel that car at Tri-State, you get the idea that he’s a standout modified/Crate Late Model guy who deserves a chance full-time in Super Late Models.
BS: I’ve seen Weber absolutely dominate some major modified events. The guy is a wheelman. It's awesome to see somebody new moving in to shake things up in the Dirt Late Model world.
MR: Weber's win was incredible, but let me first give a shout out to the Helfrich family for again putting on one of the best shows in America. I tell people all the time. Go. To. Tri-State.
It's that simple. It's a shame they don't have more big Late Model races there, because it might be the raciest track in America. I may be a homer, but it was pretty cool when Weber said, "I can't believe I'm getting interviewed by DirtonDirt.com” ... moments like that are what make the Summernationals what it is.
TT: We’ll save talk of the Brian Shirley-Shannon Babb battle for the Hell Tour title until they wrap it up Saturday, but let’s end with another discussion about Terry Phillips. I’m not sure anyone had buried his career, but he was so lousy in 2011 it definitely shook his confidence — and eventually sent him to Bloomquist Race Cars.
Now, after switching to a Roush Yates powerplant to go along with his new car, Phillips is on fire with six victories in his last eight starts, including Saturday's $12,000 Showdown triumph on Saturday at the Great American Dirt Track in Jetmore, Kan. Instead of asking if he’s back, I think the question now is how far can he carry it? He’s got a big chance to defend his home state’s honor Saturday when the Lucas Oil Series rolls into Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Mo.
MR: I think that's what we're all waiting for with Phillips: can he win an event like that? It's good to see him pick off regional shows, and really shows he's back, but can he knock down like a Lucas Oil race in the coming weeks at Wheatland or I-80 Speedway. We all know he's a great driver (how about the way he was wheeling the high-side at Jetmore?!), but if he can pick off a big Lucas show, everyone will take notice.
BS: It would be monumental if Terry could win this Saturday at Wheatland. Admittedly he'll tell you that Wheatland has not been real kind to him, especially in Lucas Oil action. However, we are seeing the Terry Phillips of old right now, and that team really feels like they can win anywhere. While I don't see him getting the win this Saturday, I would be shocked to see him outside the top five. One thing is for sure, he has really put an impressive string of performances together going into this weekend.